Benny Morris Roils Middle East Politics (Again) (NYT)

Roundup: Talking About History

Ethan Bronner, in the NYT (Feb. 20, 2004):

Of all the issues separating Israelis and Palestinians, nothing is more contentious than the Palestinian "right of return." Palestinian refugees say they must be permitted to go back to the lands they lost during the 1947-48 war inside what is today Israel. Even pragmatic Arabs who do not expect that Israel will ever permit large numbers of refugees to return believe that many Palestinians were pushed out of their homes through intimidation and force in a planned expulsion, and they believe that the right of return must be acknowledged, if not actually put into practice.

Israelis counter that the real aim of the right of return is to suffocate their state by flooding it with hostile Arabs — a sort of Trojan horse. Moreover, they argue, there is no historic sin that requires expiation because there was no Zionist plan to expel the Palestinians. They say that Zionist leaders urged the Palestinians to stay put, but that Arab leaders instructed them to leave so Arab armies would have a clear field.

In the Middle East, history is never a purely academic exercise. Evidence that Israeli forces drove out villagers at the point of a gun or that Palestinian leaders urged villagers to abandon their homes becomes not simply an interesting fact from the past but also a weapon in an ongoing struggle. One reminder of that is the current controversy over the Israeli historian Benny Morris.

There are few more prominent figures in the debate over the origin of the refugees than Mr. Morris, who in 1988 published "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem," a book that helped force Israelis to accept the idea that Palestinian expulsions did indeed occur. Now Mr. Morris is back with a new book that is a heavily revised and updated version of the 1988 account. Based on new Israeli documents, it adds more details of Zionist misdeeds, but also some pertinent new information shoring up the argument that the Palestinians were the authors of their own tragedy. And in the current climate of Palestinian suicide bombings and what he considers unyielding Palestinian rejectionism, Mr. Morris draws very different conclusions this time from his research.

The French philosopher Ernest Renan once said that a nation is "a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbors." Mr. Morris's new book suggests that both Israelis and Palestinians fit that description to some extent. The book reinforces central tenets of each side's narrative.

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